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Casting directors — the invisible force of stage and screen

Casting directors — the invisible force of stage and screen

Casting directors — the invisible force of stage and screen
February 14
05:42 2019

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This week, a group of creative people spruced up in their finery headed for an awards ceremony with fingers crossed. Nothing new, you might think — this is, after all, the awards season: Baftas, Oscars, etc. But this particular set of awards was the first of its kind for UK film, TV and theatre: the inaugural Casting Directors’ Guild Awards. The prizes went to Debbie McWilliams (for Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool), Kate Rhodes James (Bodyguard) and Paul Wooller, Felicity French and Trevor Jackson (Hamilton).

“For years we have been trying to get Bafta to recognise us as part of the industry,” explains Victor Jenkins, chair of the Casting Directors’ Guild. “To no avail. So we thought it was about time we celebrated what we do.”

Casting directors, he says, are the Cinderellas of the entertainment business when it comes to awards. They are among the most influential people in the industry: the first port of call for any director looking to cast a film, play or commercial. They can give young actors that longed-for break simply by calling them up for audition. They play a key role in shaping the look and voice of a piece, in finding new talent and improving inclusivity. But their input often goes unrecognised. One problem, suggests McWilliams, who has cast the last 13 James Bond films, is that it is an invisible skill.

“If something has been well cast you won’t even notice,” she says. “It’s not like a production designer or costume designer where you can see the designs. It is a hard thing to judge.”

Annette Bening and Jamie Bell in ‘Film Stars Don’t Lie In Liverpool’, for which Debbie McWilliams won a Casting Directors’ Guild Award

We’re sitting in the headquarters of Spotlight, the casting directory in which more than 60,000 actors are listed, in the heart of London’s Soho. Joining Jenkins and McWilliams are Andy Pryor, Sam Jones and Lucinda Syson. Between them, they have worked on Doctor Who, X-Men, Stardust, Call the Midwife, The Hollow Crown and Broadchurch. Yet many people outside the industry have little idea what they do. Meanwhile, scenes such as Mia’s bruising first audition in the film La La Land (based on actor Ryan Gosling’s real experience), in which a casting director cuts her off in the midst of an emotional speech, don’t paint them in a flattering light. So what do they get up to all day?

“We start with a script that we read and digest,” says McWilliams, describing a typical film casting schedule. “I’m sure when you’re reading a book you can see faces in your head. We put actors’ names to those faces, then we go through a process of making a list, contacting their agents, seeing if they’re available, organising auditions . . . We whittle them down until there are two or three choices and then the director will choose who they want. We then negotiate the deals and the paperwork and follow it all through. That can take anything from two weeks to three years.”

Kate Rhodes James won a Casting Directors’ Guild Award for ‘Bodyguard’, starring Richard Madden and Keeley Hawes © World Productions

“Debbie mentioned a script,” adds Syson. “That’s one of the good days! We’re dealing with moving schedules, moving scripts, moving directors — even moving writers — and with agents and actors who get offered other things.”

But a casting director is far more than some kind of super-patient human Rolodex. He or she is a matchmaker, aiming to interpret a director’s view of a role and fit that director with an actor. They are also looking to create a team — Jones, a former head of casting at the Royal Shakespeare Company, points out that a theatre acting company could be together for years.

“You’ve got to think about how these individuals are going to be with each other for that length of time,” she says. “You’re not only casting for skill, you’re casting for personality.

Really good casting is an art, involving imagination, a determination to introduce new talent and the ability to encourage producers and directors to take risks. To that end many spend a lot of time in theatres (two of them head off to watch an understudy performance of a West End show after we meet).

Jamael Westman as Alexander Hamilton in the London production of ‘Hamilton’, cast by Paul Wooller, Felicity French and Trevor Jackson © Matthew Murphy

“It can be frustrating talking to a producer or director who doesn’t get to the theatre as much and has a very linear idea about who someone is,” says Jenkins. “I remember having a conversation about Olivia Colman prior to Broadchurch [the TV crime serial for which she won a Bafta] and someone saying: ‘Oh, but she’s just a comedy actress.’ Because all they’d seen was [the TV comedy series] Peepshow. We kick back sometimes and argue with producers and directors. There is a creative aspect to it.”

“One of the battles we fight on behalf of actors is to introduce new people,” agrees McWilliams. “I cheer when I see someone I haven’t seen before. And my first pool to dip into has always been the theatre, because you can tell so much more about someone by seeing them live, hearing them breathe.”

But woven into the process is rejection. Casting directors run the audition room and McWilliams says the skill is to support actors to do themselves justice. “To be an actor, you’re exposing yourself,” she says. “It’s like standing there with no pants on — it’s horrible! So if you think that they haven’t done their best you might say. ‘Maybe you’d like to do it again?’ You can try to steer it.”

This is most critical, perhaps, in the drive for increased diversity across the acting profession. In 2015, the campaign group Act for Change mounted a high-profile event at London’s National Theatre to stimulate discussion on improving representation. Jenkins, who put forward black British actor David Gyasi for Achilles in the 2018 BBC series Troy: Fall of a City, suggests that things are slowly changing and adds that the responsibility extends beyond just selecting actors for auditions.

“It’s part of our job to read a script and ask ‘Why does that character have to be a white male? Why can’t they be female? Older? Younger? Is there any particular reason why that character is written like that?’ And often the answer is no, and the writer has just written it like that. So it’s up to us to go, ‘Cool, great character, why don’t we just flip the gender?’ ”

“The greater issue still needs to be who is doing the writing and who they are writing for,” adds Pryor. “It’s a collective job to move the industry on.”

thecdg.co.uk

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